Great Texts of the Bible
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.—Psalm 130:11. This psalm belongs to the group of fifteen psalms called Psalms of Ascents or Goings up. It is a Psalter within the Psalter, and may possibly have originally formed a separate hymn-book. When these fifteen psalms—120–134 inclusive—were written we know not; but they have about them the breath of the exile in a foreign land, who from the long levels of his alien home saw far off in fancy the hills of his beloved fatherland; or nearer, in his going up from his captivity, beheld once more the snowcapped heights of Hermon to the north, or the grey, stony hills stand round about Jerusalem, as the mercy of God stood round about His people. Those who in imagination go back to the time when the singers took their harps from the willow-trees by Euphrates’ side, and tuned them to these tender hymns, may hear as they read them how in some far warrior chieftain’s tent, “upon the frosty Caucasus,” the exile who has long time “dwelt among those that are enemies unto peace,” chants sadly enough, “Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell in Meshech and have my habitation among the tents of Kedar”; or may catch the cry of hope and triumph of the fugitive band, as they see the sun rise over the purple hills that bound the parched deserts or the moonlight wastes they have left behind.
This was one of the favourite psalms of Luther—one he paraphrased and had set to music; in it, he said he saw the gate of heaven opening wide to him. His paraphrase of it became one of the favourite hymns of the German Reformers. And the song returned into Luther’s own heart. During the Augsburg Diet, when he was at the Castle of Coburg, and had to suffer much from inward and outward trials, he fell into a swoon. On awaking from it, he said, “Come and let us, in defiance of the devil, sing the Psalm, ‘Lord, from the depths to thee I cry.’ Let us sing it in full chorus and extol and praise God.” Being asked on one occasion which were the best Psalms, he replied, “The Pauline Psalms” (Psalmi Paulini), and being pressed to say which they were, he answered: “The 32nd, the 51st, the 130th, and the 143rd. For they teach us that the forgiveness of sins is vouchsafed to them that believe without the law and without works; therefore are they Pauline Psalms; and when David sings, ‘With thee is forgiveness, that thou mayest be feared,’ so Paul likewise saith, ‘God hath concluded all under sin that he may have mercy on all.’ Therefore none can boast of his own righteousness, but the words, ‘That thou mayest be feared,’ thrust away all self-merit, teach us to take off our hat before God and confess, gratia est, non meritum, remissio non satisfactio—‘it is all forgiveness, and no merit.’ ”
In the Depths
1. Our human nature and human life have their depths, and not in anything are they less understood than in the depths which belong to them. Their superficial aspects are for ever hiding from us their deeper realities. What calls itself knowledge of men—acquaintance with their ordinary thoughts, passions, motives, and ways, with their various humours, caprices, follies, and weaknesses—is not knowledge of man, of the inner and real man which the outer man as often conceals as reveals.
We speak at times of “a shallow man.” But is there any such man anywhere? There are only too many men everywhere who are living on the surface of their nature, keenly alive to their earth-born wants and to the capacities of human existence for work and pleasure, men whose days are largely the record of mean ambitions and strivings. But to judge by appearances is nearly always misleading. The acutest judges of character are often at fault, and none go more frequently and lamentably astray in their reckoning than those who boast most confidently of their knowledge of men. In the so-called shallow man we may perceive, if we look intently and sympathetically enough, what is not shallow, and find, especially in those revealing hours when the tragic forces of existence sweep into his life, some suggestion of the latent power which needs the fiery storm to throw it up to the surface. We are often only passing judgment upon ourselves, upon our want of thought, imagination, and insight, when we proclaim our fellows to be lacking in those elements to which the great and deep things of life make their appeal. In the circle in which we live and move there would be many rich discoveries for any one with fine imaginative power, skilled to see into
The depths of human souls—
Souls that appear to have no depth at all
To careless eyes.
There is a well-known poem by Matthew Arnold entitled “The Buried Life”—a poem full of haunting music and rare introspective power. It is a picture of many a soul, and it is not difficult to fill in from experience the outline which it supplies. We all have the power of living so completely upon the surface of our souls as to be ignorant of what is hidden in their depths. It is, indeed, a large part of the pathos and tragedy of life that we are so disobedient to the oracle which bids us know ourselves. We either do not care for self-knowledge, or imagine we have it in such abundance that we can swear by it at times—“as well as I know myself!” But there are moments when we have glimpses of what we are and may be, of hitherto unknown capacities and powers, and from beneath our conscious life there rise the murmuring voices of a deeper—a buried life.
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain.1 [Note: J. Hunter, De Profundis Clamavi, 3.]
2. Perhaps the Psalmist personifies the nation. The later days of Israel’s history were days of storm and stress. The golden age of national prosperity had passed away. Storm after storm had swept over the nation. The great Powers of the East had arisen. They felt their strength, and the little exclusive Israelitish nation was their constant and ready prey. Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Egypt arose in their might. Part of the nation was dispersed and disappeared, and part of it was carried away. Those who returned after the Exile were but a poor and broken remnant, still under the dominion of their conquerors. We may hear in this pathetic psalm the voice of the nation crying to the Lord out of the deep waters of its distress. Its pride is humbled, its soul is brought low even to the dust by the wholesome discipline of adversity.
We all remember those long, dark months at the beginning of the South African War, when we were appalled by the news of one reverse after another. There was the dread suspense, the anxious waiting. In many a home the interest was a personal one, and mothers and wives and children were in the depths of apprehension for loved ones far away. In that dark experience the nation betook itself to prayer and learnt to lift up its eyes to One above, and found in Him a very present help and stay in trouble.1 [Note: R. B. Tweddell.]
3. Whatever the original reference of the phrase “out of the depths,” it comes to us with a larger meaning than the writer could apprehend. It is not an incident of life, it is life itself that constitutes for us the deep out of which we cry. We of this modern world have caught, as men never before have caught, a sense of the mystery of life. Men have lost, perhaps for ever, the art of unconscious objective living, the habit of looking upon life as a child looks upon its mother, gratefully accepting her gifts and asking no questions. We have well-nigh tortured all beauty and joy out of life by our fierce, relentless probings. In return we have captured here and there a fact, a force, a law, a glimpse of the methods by which life fulfils itself. Our sciences and philosophies have broadened our conceptions. To us life is a larger, richer thing than to our fathers. But, after all, our deepest questions are unanswered. There is no possibility of their answer. What is life? What is its purpose? Whence did it come? Whither does it go? Why am I here, living to-day a conscious, sentient, thinking drop in the mighty torrent of life that pours unceasingly from the exhaustless bosom of nature? I am borne on the flow of the torrent. Whence? Whither? Wherefore? These are questions a man asks when he disengages himself from the rush of the world and tries to find some meaning for his life. It may be an unhealthy business; but never were men so busy at it as now. The difficulty is that life echoes back our questions unanswered. It refuses to explain itself. We are simply submerged in the stream which flows through nature, as the planets roll in their orbits, and the waves of light pulse through the ether. What remains? There remains the mystery which we call prayer, almost as great a mystery as life itself.
God in His infinite mercy has placed us in those deeps of wonder at life and death, of why and whither, deeps of intense agony: “Wherefore hidest thou thy face?” “Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself.” Deeps of intense joy: “Thou art about my bed, and spiest out all my ways, there is not a thought in my heart but thou knowest it altogether”; and deeps of satisfaction and quiet inward peace, which Wordsworth spoke of when he said—
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.1 [Note: H. D. Rawnsley.]
4. There is a deeper mystery still—the mystery of sin. The great religions of the world expressed in sacrifices and rituals of atonement, often grotesque and horrible, their sense of moral failure and guilt. The sense is rooted in the conscience, and it has deepened as the life of the conscience has deepened. It finds expression in the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It sends out a long, agonizing cry from the pages of St. Paul. The religion whose elemental facts and implications he, more than any other man, threw into architectonic form, disclosed the subtlety and virulence of the taint which had fastened on human nature. In giving to men a new sense of God, it gave them a new sense of sin. All along its history, those who have climbed farthest up its spiritual heights, its saints and heroes, have glanced with the most shuddering fear down the spiritual chasms on whose verge they trod.
The German naturalist, Büchner, in his book, Man in the Past, the Present, and the Future, writes these profound words: “It is only in man that the world becomes conscious to such a degree that it rises out of its previous dream-like natural existence. Struggle therefore rages on the domain of morals as violently as it formerly did on the physical field.” And another German scholar, Frauenstadt, in his Religion of Nature, writes: “In the self-assertion of the flesh against the spirit I recognize sin; and since man is by nature subject to this tyranny of the flesh, it follows that he is by nature sinful; and the sinful nature propagating itself, there arises an original sinfulness.”1 [Note: W. W. Battershall.]
The word sin implies the existence of something which ought not to be where it is; in using it, we set up an external standard and condemn what fails to conform to it. The most decisive argument against identifying sin with imperfection is the verdict of the human consciousness itself. The consciousness of sin as a positive malignant fact is most intense in the highest natures. It is the saint, not the sinner, who says, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” It was the Son of God Himself who, as Christians believe, gave His life a ransom for sin, because no smaller price could destroy its power.2 [Note: W. R. Inge, Truth and Falsehood in Religion.]
The Cry Out of the Depths
1. The cry for God is the natural utterance of the awakened soul of man in every land and age—the cry of man whenever and wherever he freely speaks out of the depths of his nature, an aspiration which all history confesses. It may not always be an intelligent or conscious cry, but a seeker after God man has always been and must ever be, because from God he comes, begotten, not made, and with a nature so constituted that only in God can he find his full and final satisfaction and rest. The surface of his life may often appear to say one thing, and its depths quite another thing, but it is the cry from the depths that reveals what he truly is and what he most needs. It is his inmost wants and desires, not his hard, cold sense and keen understanding, that read most rightly the secret of his life. It is not his real spiritual needs that belong to the surface of his life, but only those poor selfish cravings which are often mistaken for them by ill-instructed minds. Outwardly he may seem to long and cry for other things more than for the presence of God, and to find his peace and joy in them; but when his soul is moved and searched, and the fountains of the great deep are broken up, in all those crises which throw light on the inner condition and movement of his being, the cry for God is seen to be fundamental, and his longing to connect his life in some way with the life of the invisible and eternal world is felt to be an irrepressible longing, which tends ever to rise into a strong and intense passion.
It was once said by a celebrated English lawyer of our time that the man who could not get on without religion, who could not occupy his mind with love, friendship, business, politics, science, art, literature, and travel, must be a poor kind of creature. It is, on the contrary, the man who can be wholly satisfied with outward and earthly things apart from God who is the poor kind of creature living upon the surface of his nature, with the energies of his spirit still dormant, or so suppressed and overborne that they are in danger of dying out. To be truly a man is to have infinite capacity for God, to have desires, affections, and needs which the things of civilization and culture cannot satisfy, which can be satisfied only in communion with the Divine. Man, be he what he may, is made to be a seeker after God; and, because he cannot escape from himself, he cannot escape from God.1 [Note: J. Hunter, De Profundis Clamavi, 15.]
The one thought which possesses me most at this time and, I may say, has always possessed me, is that we have been dosing our people with religion when what they want is not this but the Living God, and that we are threatened now, not with the loss of religious feeling, so-called, or of religious notions, or of religious observances, but with Atheism. Everywhere I seem to perceive this peril. The battle within, the battle without, is against this; the heart and the flesh of our countrymen is crying out for God. We give them a stone for bread, systems for realities; they despair of ever attaining what they need. The upper classes become, as may happen, sleekly devout for the sake of good order, avowedly believing that one must make the best of the world without God; the middle classes try what may be done, by keeping themselves warm in dissent and agitation, to kill the sense of hollowness; the poor, who must have realities of some kind, and understanding from their betters that all but houses and lands are abstractions, must make a grasp at them or else destroy them. And the specific for all this evil is some evangelical discourse upon the Bible being the rule of faith, some High Church cry for tradition, some liberal theory of education. Surely we want to preach it in the ears of all men. It is not any of these things or all these things together you want, or that those want who speak of them. All are pointing towards a Living Being, to know whom is life, and all, so far as they are set up for any purpose but leading us into that knowledge, and so to fellowship with each other, are dead things which cannot profit.1 [Note: The Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, i. 369.]
2. No one can call from the depths until he has gone down into the depths; and no one can reasonably expect God to be “attentive unto the voice of his supplication” until he cry “out of the depths.” There is much outward prayer in the present day. Services, and means of grace, and administrations of the Sacraments are multiplied, and many wonder that there is not a corresponding visible result in life and morals. Is it not possible that the failure may arise from the conditions of successful prayer not being fulfilled? May not the charge against Israel be partly true against ourselves—This people honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me? They have fasted to the letter and not to the spirit. The “cry,” the worship, the prayer, may not have come from the “depths” of conscious spiritual need, and so it has not reached the everlasting hills; it has not risen to the throne of the Lord’s Presence; it has not awakened and could not awaken a response. How can we expect the great and holy God to be “attentive” when we are scarcely attentive ourselves, when our utterances are merely formal, dictated by no feeling of penitence or awe? To approach God acceptably, to speak to Him aright, the cry must come “out of the depths” of the soul, and to do this a man must go down into those depths.
The Psalmist went down into the depths of shame on account of his sin, and his cry is therefore the sharp cry of penitence. This is plain from his words; for he adds, “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” His conscience had been awakened. He had realized the enormity of sin. His accuser had stood before him, charging him with faults enough to condemn him for ever. He had seen that he was full of sin, burdened with guilt, in imminent danger of punishment. He sank into the depths, overwhelmed by fear, beholding the justice of God and His power to inflict penalty, swallowed up in despair and the consciousness of guilt.
The Cross of Calvary which tells of the awfulness of sin speaks also of the mercy of a sin-forgiving God. The soul looks to the completed sacrifice of propitiation and thence to the risen, living Saviour, who continues to make intercession for us. Well has the poet Fenner expressed the experience—
Up from the deeps, O God, I cry to Thee,
Hear my soul’s prayer, hear Thou her litany,
O Thou who sayest, “Come, wanderer, home to Me.”
Up from the deeps of sorrow, wherein lie
Dark secrets veiled from earth’s unpitying eye,
My prayers, like star-crowned angels, Godward fly.
Not from life’s shallows where the waters sleep,
A dull, low marsh where stagnant waters sleep,
But ocean-voiced, deep calling unto deep.
3. In the lowest depths the cry of the soul becomes most importunate. Down in the depths the suffering soul instinctively reaches out its hands even though manacled by doubt—instinctively raises its voice, even though bitter with rebellion—for God, for nothing less than God, for God as the only One sufficient for the awful needs of the lonely failing heart. Such depths are places of revelation. They show what even the common superficial life needs, though it may not be aware of it. They bid us know our real Helper, that when we rise again to the common level we may not forget the supreme lesson taught us by this glimpse, through tears, into the tremendous realities of life.
“Perhaps to suffer,” wrote the Swiss theologian, Vinet, in one of his letters, “is nothing else than to live deeply. Love and sorrow are the conditions of a profound life.” A truer word was never spoken. The tragedy in which we live is meant to educate us. There would indeed be no understanding of life at all did we not know from experience that in life’s depths we receive our best teaching and training. Out of the depths have come the finest poetry, the finest music, the finest speech of the world. “The Bible owes its place in literature,” said Emerson, “not to miracles, but to the fact that it comes from a profounder depth of life than any other book.” Out of the depths have come the most inspired and inspiring of the psalms of faith, both ancient and modern. Out of the depths men have brought blessings which are rarely found in green pastures and by still waters. We never know how much God is the one great need of the soul till we go down to the depths.1 [Note: J. Hunter, De Profundis Clamavi, 22.]
The Hearer of Prayer
The Psalmist’s cry is addressed to the Lord, and we notice that the word “Lord” is printed in capital letters; and whenever the word Lord is in capitals it stands for Jehovah. This was the highest name of God. It was considered so sacred by the Jew that he never pronounced it. When he read the Scriptures he substituted another name—Adonai—which was of a less sacred character. This name appears in the second and third verses of the psalm. Indeed we cannot be quite certain as to the right pronunciation of this incommunicable name of the God of Israel.
1. Does this God hear? Is there a Divine response to man’s cry from the depths? There must be in the nature of things, we are persuaded, such a response, something outside of man answering to his inner life and fulfilling its needs, actual movement and manifestation on the part of God corresponding to our natural cravings after Him. Out of the depths man cries, down to the depths God must come, meeting with a corresponding answer every real want of the souls He has made to seek after Him, if haply they may feel after Him and find Him. Whatever may be the relations between human aspiration and Divine condescension, whatever may be the conditions of the coming down of the heavenly help to human need, it is simply impossible for any religious soul to think that there is no approach of God to man. Unless life is a tremendous unreality and illusion, and we come into the world only to be fooled and cheated; unless the universe departs from its order in dealing with the spiritual necessities of mankind and the cry for God meets with exceptional treatment, quite unlike that given to the other functions and attitudes of our nature, it is simply inconceivable that the fundamental cravings of the soul can exist without their satisfaction and the prayer from the depths remain unanswered.
The objection that prayer involves the dictation of man to God; that prayer, where it is answered, means the control of things by man’s uninformed wishes, rather than by infinite wisdom, or by the reign of law, falls at once to the ground when we consider what true prayer really is. It is a travesty of the idea to suppose it means saying to God, “Do this, or that”; “Give me what I want.” For the genuine prayer comes in the first instance not from man, but from God Himself. It is the gracious circulation of Divine ideas through the human soul. It is the rain from heaven, falling upon this prepared soil, and springing up there in love, and trust, and holy resignation to a Will higher than itself. It is, as Goethe has somewhere put it, God seeking for Himself and meeting Himself in man. Prayer at its truest is not man having his way with God, but God having His way with Man 1:1 [Note: J. Brierley, Religion and To-Day, 64.]
2. God answers man’s cry for forgiveness, for reconciliation and union with Him. The great obstacle to religion in our world is not ignorance, but sin. More than enlightenment, we need salvation. Can all our civilization minister to a troubled conscience? Can all our culture heal a guilty pang? Can the knowledge of any scientific, philosophical, or theological truth subdue an evil passion? But in the depths of our weakness and sin God is our salvation. The deliverance of man is dear to God. It is the essential nature of love to seek and to save. Because God is love, He is ever coming down to the depths of our life, depths of sorrow and sin, the deepest depths of degradation, in order to help and to bring to Himself by all the power of His love His wayward and disobedient children. Whether it be a fallen or a rising world we live in, we know in our hearts that we need reconciliation with the God of the world. Blessed be His eternal love! He has never been outside His world, but has been always in it, bearing the sins and carrying the sorrows of our race. Its history is the history of redemption, the history of the unceasing efforts of Him with whom we have to do, to influence without compelling the vagrant and stubborn wills of men.
We must hold on fast to the fact that God’s forgiveness is a very real thing, and not a mere dramatic thing; and that if we have to suffer what seems a disproportionate penalty for our fault, it is not sent us because God is merely an inflexible exactor of debts, but because by exacting them He gives us something that we could in no other way attain to. Where we go wrong is in comparing God to a human disciplinarian. If a father says to a son, “I forgive you, but I am going to punish you just the same,” we may frankly conclude that he does not know what forgiveness means. The fact that he punishes merely means that he does not really trust the son’s repentance, but is going to make sure that the son’s repentance is not merely a plea for remission. We have to act so, or we believe that we have to act so, on occasions, to other human beings; but it is only because we cannot really read their hearts. If we knew that a repentance was complete and sincere, we should not need to exact any punishment at all. But with God there can be no such concealments. If a man repents of a sin and puts it away from him, and if none of the dreaded consequences do befall him, he may be grateful indeed for a gracious forgiveness. But if the consequences do fall on him, he may inquire whether his repentance had indeed been sincere, or only a mere dread of contingencies; while if he is penalized, however hardly, he may believe that his sufferings will bring him a blessing, and that by no other road can he reach peace.1 [Note: A. C. Benson Along the Road, 244.]
Brown (C.), The Message of God, 216.
Church (R. W.), Pascal and Other Sermons, 1.
Dearden (H. W.), Parochial Sermons, 14.
Hunter (J.), De Profundis Clamavi, 1.
King (T. S.), Christianity and Humanity, 17.
Lonsdale (J.), Sermons, 152.
Purves (G. T.), Faith and Life, 323.
Travers (H.), The Garden of Voices, 94.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), New Ser., xvi. (1878), No. 1078.
Christian World Pulpit, 1. 177 (H. D. Rawnsley); lxxi. 346 (R. B. Tweddell).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Ash Wednesday, v. 269 (W. W. Battershall).